Acting U.S. Environmental Protection Administrator Andrew Wheeler has made a flurry of changes to a key scientific advisory committee that helps set national air quality standards.
Wheeler on Oct. 10 placed five new members on the agency's Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, or CASAC, which has traditionally provided independent recommendations to the EPA administrator. The seven-member committee is required under Section 109 of the Clean Air Act, and it gives critical advice related to the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, or NAAQS, for six air pollutants that are considered harmful to the public and environment, including how the standards should be set with an adequate margin of safety.
Wheeler on Oct. 10 called the five new CASAC additions highly qualified, touting their "diverse set of backgrounds." In a statement, Wheeler said the experts "will provide critical scientific advice to EPA" as it evaluates national standards for key pollutants such as ozone and particulate matter.
But environmental advocates are expressing alarm, noting that only one of the new members is an independent academic researcher. Four of the new additions worked for state or local regulatory agencies, and one new member co-authored a 2015 paper questioning the EPA's current ozone standard.
Moreover, Wheeler on Oct. 11 also disbanded the CASAC's particulate matter review panel, a group of nearly two dozen scientific experts tasked with helping the committee properly assess the danger of microscopic airborne pollutants. And the EPA confirmed on Oct. 11 that it will not convene a similar advisory panel to assess research on hazardous smog-forming pollutants as the agency proceeds with a review of ground-level ozone standards.
'A coordinated series of things'
In a brief memo issued May 10, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt kicked off a new review of the NAAQS for ozone and particulate matter and announced a streamlined "Back-to-Basics" approach. The memo prioritized ensuring statutory deadlines are met, addressing all Clean Air Act provisions, streamlining and standardizing the process for development and review of key policy-relevant information, differentiating science and policy judgments in the NAAQS review process, and issuing timely implementation regulations and guidance.
Lianne Sheppard, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Washington who was replaced on Oct. 11 as a member of CASAC, said Wheeler's changes are consistent with the "Back-to-Basics" approach. But Sheppard, who was also on the particulate matter review panel, said the seven-member committee is not capable of reviewing thousands of pages of health studies that the nearly two-dozen member panel of experts traditionally pored over.
“The new plans for the review panel, with only the seven chartered CASAC members doing the review, suggest to me that the breadth and depth of the review will be limited," Sheppard said in an interview. "This will adversely affect rigor and quality of the scientific review that can be done, which in turn could have serious implications for public health in the future.”
An EPA spokesman asserted in an Oct. 12 email that the changes are permitted under the federal Clean Air Act and consistent with the CASAC’s charter, adding that the seven-member CASAC will review key science assessments for the ongoing review of the particulate matter and ozone NAAQS. The official declined to respond to questions about why the particulate matter review panel was disbanded or the ozone panel will not be convened.
In a Twitter post, John Walke, who leads the Natural Resources Defense Council's clean-air advocacy work, pointed out that one new CASAC member, toxicologist Sabine Lange with the Texas Council on Environmental Quality, has downplayed the public health risks of ozone.
Other new members of the CASAC include Corey Masuca, a principal air pollution control engineer with the Jefferson County Department of Health in Alabama; Steven Packham, a toxicologist with Utah's Department of Environmental Quality; and Timothy Lewis, an aquatic ecology expert with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The only academic scientist in the group is pulmonologist Mark Frampton, a professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center, who has published research on ozone air pollution limits.
Wheeler's recent changes represent "a coordinated series of things," said Chris Frey, a professor of environmental engineering who served as chair of CASAC from 2012 to 2015. Frey also chaired the committee's most recent ozone advisory panel when it recommended the new 2015 standard.
Frey acknowledged that the EPA has traditionally struggled to meet the Clean Air Act requirement to conduct NAAQS reviews every five years. But even with a reconstituted CASAC that has shed its advisory panels, he said the EPA could still have trouble completing its five-year ozone and particulate matter reviews by late 2020.
"These science reviews really take a lot of scientific horsepower, and even if you have the best seven people on CASAC you still need to augment CASAC with additional experts," he said. "It's almost impossible for seven people to have the range of expertise needed to deal with the wide variety of issues in these pollutant-specific reviews."